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Translating Ovid's Tristia

Ovid and Blank Verse

Perhaps there seems an excessive focus on blank verse in these pages. It's a compact and effective medium, easy to write and read, but by no means the only possibility. Poets today generally find it heavy and coercive, preferring something closer to living speech: i.e. fresh, colloquial and unforced. If we look at later examples collected in Christopher Martin's attractive paperback Ovid in English, {1} (its 400 pages presenting 123 excerpts from 77 translators), we find this translator introduction: "David R. Slavitt's beautiful translations bring Ovid's exile poems finally into their own for the contemporary English audience, capturing the poignancy of these often difficult laments in sturdy couplets of six or five stresses."

David Slavitt's Translation

Two examples are given: the first starts:

Let us imagine a ruin — say of some small Greek temple
   in an out of the way place, where the god happened
to speak or spare or warn or simply to show herself,
   nearly levelled, say by an earthquake, but one
single column left, holding up its corner
   by which we can imagine the rest of the structure.
Which is the more affecting, the ruined part of the building,
   or that surviving piece of it, forlorn,
bereaved of the rest? My life is the ruin; yours, dear wife,
   is that still-standing beautiful pillar, vessel
for the spirit that yet abides. How else to declare
   my love for you, who deserve a less wretched
though not better or more deserving husband? My powers
   are not what they were. Clumsy sincerity
must speak with its thick tongue, stammering out thanks
   and affection, unadorned but still heartfelt. {1}

Charming, with a believable voice and an easy pace. A few words are perhaps struck too heavily (forlorn, abides, stammering), but the lines yield their sense convincingly despite the obvious artifice. Martin refers later in his introduction to a 'free rendering', and to see how much is the case here we turn to Tony Kline's version:

You’re the support on which my ruins rest,
if I’m still anyone, it’s all your gift.
It’s your doing that I’m not despoiled, stripped bare
by those who sought the planks from my shipwreck.
As a wolf raging with the goad of hunger,
eager for blood, catches the fold unguarded,
or as a greedy vulture peers around
to see if it can find an unburied corpse,
so someone, faithless, in my bitter trouble,
would have come into my wealth, if you’d let them.
Your courage, with our friends, drove them off, bravely,
friends I can never thank as they deserve.
So you’re proven, by one who’s as true as he’s wretched,
if such a witness carries any weight. {2}

Very different.

A word-for-word rendering of the Latin text using a dictionary gives:

te   mea   supposita ueluti trabe  fulta         ruina     est:
you of_me suppose   as_if timber supported collapse is

siquid  adhuc    ego     sum, muneris omne tui  est.
if_who till_now myself am    service  all     you is

tu   facis,  ut spolium non sim,   nec     nuder      ab    illis,
you make, while spoils no exist, neither lay_bare from those

naufragii   tabulas qui         petiere     mei.
shipwreck panel     whereby entreated to_me

utque            rapax      stimulante fame    cupidusque cruoris
in_order_that rapacious incite_with hunger eager         gore      

incustoditum         captat         ouile       lupus,
not_watched_over try_to_reach sheepfold wolf

aut UT edax        uultur   corpus circumspicit ecquod
or   as devouring vulture body    survey        which

sub    nulla positum  cernere          possit   humo,
under none situation distinguishing is_able earth

sic mea   nescioquis, rebus male fidus    acerbis
so to_me anyone,     affair  evil  faithful bitter

in bona    uenturus,  si paterere,              fuit.
in honest will_come, if you_were_allowing were

hunc tua per                fortis     uirtus    summouit amicos,
this  your by_means_of powerful courage drove_off supporters

nulla quibus reddi    gratia   digna     potest.
none who    restore goodwill suitable is_able

ergo       quam misero,   tam                     uero      teste     probaris,
therefore who  wretched to_such_an_extent in_truth witness assent

hic   aliquod pondus si modo testis         habet. {4}
here several burden if  only   by_witness holds

If rather doggerel as verse, the Kline rendering is at least faithful, compact and intelligent. The Slavitt version is largely an invention. Where the Latin talks about a spar remaining from a shipwreck, David Slavitt has introduced a long passage on Greek ruins and their cause. Why?

Poets can surely please themselves what they do with their material, and the reader will not complain if the translation is titled "from/after the Latin". All poets invent, and the crime is not to do justice to the contraband. I would myself prefer the Kline version, feeling surer I was reading Ovid, but others may feel that the charm of the Slavitt rendering outweighs other considerations.

The Tristia is not simple autobiography: Ovid was exiled but continued developing his persona. That interwoven reality and artifice should appear in the 'voice', what we hear in the translation, where there are three ways of proceeding. We can create subplots that give the content a more personal dimension, as Slavitt has done here, and Yeats would sometimes. We can add emotional colour through telling details that writers learn to add in novel or short-story writing courses. Or we can stick to the original text but control the emotion evoked through the verse—if we think of verse in its larger context of placing of the right words in the right places.

To see the second in operation, here is a free rendering of a Tristia section by Paul Batchelor:

I watch you wave, & when you disappear
become a house where nobody lives;
an old fa├žade decayed; a pillow bereft
of the smell of your hair. A stranger asks
but nobody ’minds who lived in that
boarded up ruin children say is haunted,
where manuscripts lie strewn about the floor;
where lemon trees have over-run the orchard;
where, in the quartered fields, stogged wheat
reeks like a byre & rape holds sway.
You wave your arms & crows
scatter like crows. And that’s the pose
in which I’ve held you – waiting, open armed –
for seven years. And I’m still here. {4}

So that these details aren't too obviously thrust at the reader, their surrounding medium needs to be quiet and meditative, and this is achieved here by an effective if unattractive prose.

Verse Approach

Matters are much more difficult with the third approach. Verse techniques exist to produce the appropriate tone, but they generally operate in lyric sequences, self-contained lines that rhyme, i.e. not over long stretches of narrative. Here is one attempt, however. First we write hexameters in rhymed quatrains:

Whatever little I am, it is on you I rest,
to keep the whole from foundering has been your care,
your constant watching out for us, your actions lest
men rip the very panels out of shipwreck there.

Well, there are those who would risk the protected fold
to feed the ravenous hunger in their thoughts,
that even before the fallen body's cold
like vultures shamelessly strip bare the corpse.

Those who still remember me, but mostly you
have countered litigants, and stopped the worst,
and such, so many of them, for thanks must do
with this belated missive from a distant post.

Then we shorten into pentameters, removing the inversions:

In truth, whatever little I am, I rest
on you, who keep the whole from foundering: care
that is ever needed, frankly, lest
men steal even wood from shipwreck there.

Always there are wolves about a sheepfold,
a ravenous hunger in their thoughts
so that even before some poor body's cold
the vultures settle to strip the corpse.

Many have helped, but it is mostly you
who countered litigants and stopped the worst
of it, and for thanks, small thanks, must do
with this short missive from a distant post.

Then we lighten, using a more idiomatic language and drawing closer to the sense:

Whatever little now remains I rest
in you. I know that always you will care
for us, and keep your wits about you, lest
men strip the panels from the shipwreck there.

They raven for our blood, as will the fold
goad on the wolf unwatched with hungry thoughts
to snatch at us before our case is cold,
or vultures drop on an abandoned corpse.

We have our brave supporters, but it's you
who largely drove them off, for which good will
my wretchedness is witness, here as true
as griefs with which I feel the burdens still.

So: reasonably faithful, not as close as the Kline rendering but sufficient to give the lie to arguments that rhyme always introduces serious distortions. The verse is rhythmically deft and pleasing (I'd have thought), but lacks the distancing or toying with the predicament of the Slavitt rendering. As to be expected, a blank verse rendering is more compact, closer to the prose sense but lacking charm:

As though supposing all I had was yours,
the single stave that saved me from collapse,
with nothing in it, still you hold off men
who'd strip the panels from our shipwrecked state.
It is men's hunger goads them, and their blood.
As wolves will reach into an unwatched fold
and circling vultures, ravenous, will drop
on some unburied or abandoned corpse,
so honest men will come, if you allowed it,
and faithlessly devour whatever's left.
You drove them off, with brave supporters, such
as I have insufficient thanks to give,
but, as my wretchedness must witness, true
as griefs with which I feel the burdens here.

Interesting forays, perhaps, but not showing how to create a voice growing out of the verse texture. An investigation into Ovid the man might be an alternative and better approach, i.e. create a literary persona parallel to that of the Latin text.

Notes and References

1. Tristia 1,6- Translated by David Slavitt (1990) in Martin, Christopher, (ed.) Ovid in English (Penguin, 1998). 373-5. Copyright prevents me giving the whole of this rendering, where 14 lines in the original increase to 25.

2. Ovid: Tristia: Book TI.VI:6- His Wife: Her Immortality. Translated by Tony Kline. Poetry in Translation.

3. P. Ovidius Naso. The Latin Library 1.6.

4. Tristia: After Ovid. Paul Batchelor. In Tower Poetry, February 2006. Website not now available.